How many wolves are there in the Southern Carpathians? Results of the genetic study conducted by Foundation Conservation Carpathia

By 4 November 2023 No Comments

In the Southern Carpathians, in a pilot area of 1,400 km², there are 47 wolves and a wolf-dog hybrid, divided into six packs, according to data from a genetic monitoring study conducted by a Foundation Conservation Carpathia team in 2018-2020. The study shows for the first time in Romania the presence of hybridization between wolves and dogs, a threat that can lead to the decline of the species, as already observed in other European countries.

Details of the project, the movement of wolves in the study area and the story of the pack at Bârsa Izvoarele Dâmboviței:

”Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”

                                     Aldo Leopold, American writer and conservationist

Brasov, 4th of November 2023: Foundation Conservation Carpathia, the largest conservation organisation in Romania, has completed a genetic monitoring study of the wolf species (Canis lupus), thus determining the number of wolves in the Southern Carpathians over an area of 1,400 km², an area that overlaps with the eastern part of the Făgăraș Mountains, Piatra Craiului Mountains, Iezer Păpușa and Leaota. The study analysed the genetic fingerprints of the species, with the wildlife monitoring team collecting 503 non-invasive DNA samples: urine samples on snow, scat and hair left by the wolves. These were analysed in a specialised laboratory in Slovenia, where 16 canid-specific genetic markers were detected, as well as an additional genetic marker for sex identification. The data were correlated with images from cameras installed on the main trails used by wolves in the study area. The frequency with which individuals were observed by the cameras installed by the researchers in the forest was used to estimate the abundance and density of the population, which are essential parameters for the conservation of this species and the implementation of a coexistence strategy with local communities.

The study was carried out by Foundation Conservation Carpathia with the support of the OAK Foundation, the Large Infrastructure Operational Programme POIM, the European Commission through the LIFE Nature Programme and the Arcadia Foundation through the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme.

2.35 wolves/100 km² – population density in the Southern Carpathians

The study identified 48 unique individuals, 27 males, 20 females and one wolf-dog hybrid. After kinship analysis, 40 wolves and the hybrid were grouped into six packs. The remaining 7 wolves could not be assigned to a pack and are considered to be transients or animals from neighbouring packs that were incidentally detected on the boundaries of our packs.

The survey results also indicate changes in breeding pairs and unexpected changes in pack composition. Over the three years of the study, changes in breeding pairs were detected in two out of six packs.

The density estimated by Foundation Conservation Carpathia specialists in the study area is 2.35 wolves/100 km² (BCI = 1.68-3.03). This density is lower than in Yellowstone National Park in the USA (5-9.8 wolves/100 km²; Mech & Barber Meyer, 2015) or in the northern Apennines in Italy, where habitats are more fragmented (4. 7 wolves/100 km²; Apollonio et al, 2004). In the Scandinavian peninsula, an area with different climatic conditions where the wolf population is trying to recover from a large genetic decline, wolf densities are significantly lower than reported in this study (0.18 wolves/100 km²; Milleret et al, 2021).

Hybridisation between wolves and dogs

The study confirms the presence of a wolf-dog hybrid, the first official genetic confirmation in the Carpathians. Although hybridization appears to be a minor threat at the moment, it needs to be monitored in the long term as it can lead to genetic degradation of the species. In the case of Romania, hybridization is a phenomenon caused by stray dogs that have appeared in wolf habitats. Their presence threatens the genetic health of the wolf population for decades to come. Every third detection of wolves on surveillance cameras in forest habitats is accompanied by the detection of stray dogs. To assess this phenomenon, researchers from Foundation Conservation Carpathia collected saliva samples from 21 dogs in the study area, at the same time as collecting DNA samples left behind by wolves.

“Through the techniques and methods of study that science provides, we can learn a wealth of data about a species as difficult to study as the wolf,” says Dr Ruben Iosif, coordinator of the wildlife monitoring department at Foundation Conservation Carpathia, “and the genetic study conducted by our team clarifies many unknowns about the wolf population in Romania. It is important to monitor these wolves over time so that wildlife management and conflict management with farmers is based on scientific data. In this way, we can make decisions, create patterns of coexistence and signal when there are threats to both humans and wolves, such as the occurrence of hybridization.”

Climate change, a challenge for the study team

Although sampling for the study was open all year round, systematic and intensive sampling was carried out from November to May, using snow to track pack activity, while opportunistic sampling was carried out during the warm season. The decrease in snow cover in recent years has been one of the biggest challenges for the field team, which has tracked wolves across 1,400 km² of the Southern Carpathians at altitudes ranging from 600 to 2,400 m.

How many wolves are there in Romania today? 

Official estimates put the wolf population in Romania at around 3,000, but scientific monitoring methods have not been used to calculate the number of wolves.

Although Romania appears to have a viable wolf population on a European scale, the Carpathians remain one of the least studied mountain ecosystems in Europe.

“The study is long-term and not limited to the period stated,” continues Dr Ruben Iosif. “The laboratory is now working on DNA samples for another two years because the DNA sequencing process is complex. We also plan to collect samples this winter.”

The wolf and its importance

The wolf (Canis lupus) is the second largest predator on the European continent, after the bear. Romanian animals weigh between 25 and 60 kg. The body length of an adult wolf is between 110 and 148 cm, and the tail is 30-35 cm. The height at the withers varies between 50 and 70 cm. The ears are 10-11 cm long and triangular in shape. In the wild, wolves can live for 7-8 years. In captivity they can live up to 15 years.

The wolf has been the subject of many stories, legends and myths over the centuries. The extraordinary intelligence and physical qualities of the wolf have made man respect and even deify the qualities of this animal, which has become a true symbol not only to us, but also to many other cultures and civilisations.

The presence of wolves influences the abundance of prey species and supports the complex web of life. The balance of ecosystems depends on the presence of top predators such as wolves. By depredating and removing vulnerable individuals (sick, injured, young or too old) from ecosystems, wolves help to keep prey populations healthier and more vigorous.

The hunting of ungulates (red deer, roe deer, wild boar) by wolves regulates the spatial distribution and size of herds of these species, keeping herbivore pressure on vegetation at a tolerable level. In the absence of predators such as wolves, herbivores could adversely affect forest regeneration through intensive grazing.

The absence of wolves or other natural predators can lead to imbalances in the ecosystem, with consequences for biodiversity and the health of the ecosystem as a whole. In Sweden, hunting has reduced the number of wolves and moose are destroying the forest.

Complete study:

Study data summary:

About Foundation Conservation Carpathia

Foundation Conservation Carpathia is the largest private forest conservation project in Europe, helping to restore natural ecosystems in the Carpathian Mountains for the benefit of biodiversity and local communities. Since 2009, the Foundation has saved and purchased more than 27,000 hectares of alpine forests and pastures in the south-eastern part of the Southern Carpathians for conservation purposes, planted more than 4.1 million seedlings and ecologically restored more than 1,991 hectares affected by logging, and created a 78,000-hectare area free of sport hunting and trophy hunting.